Stabling challenges the horse’s respiratory system, no matter how clean the bedding and forage. At this time of year, many horses have been stabled for several months, so their airways have been under attack from airborne particles, allergens and irritants for some time.

Some horses develop an allergy to stable, bedding and forage dust and mould spores, and suffer from airway inflammation and narrowing, and excess mucus production. This condition used to be called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) but has more recently been renamed recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). It is a little like allergic asthma and has also been called heaves, and leads to intolerance of exercise and difficulty breathing. Affected horses may need to be treated with inhaled drugs to reduce the inflammation, and will definitely have to be managed very carefully, and ideally kept outside as much as possible.

If your horse coughs as you warm up for work, take this symptom seriously and make changes in your management. Horses often don’t cough until there is substantial inflammation and irritation present.

Reducing airborne particles, allergens and irritants is the first step:

  • Keep affected horses outside as much as possible
  • If stabling is necessary, use bedding that is free of dust and mould spores
  • Avoid using deep litter (ammonia from urine is an airway irritant)
  • Muck out thoroughly and skip out as much as possible
  • Avoid storing hay or straw above stables
  • Soak all UK-made hay for at least 10 minutes or steam for 45 minutes to swell mould spores and dampen dust or feed haylage instead
  • Dampen all bucket feed before feeding
  • Dust your stable regularly, whilst the horse out of the stable
  • Groom your horse outside the stable

Take care with the forage you feed to horses kept outdoors who are susceptible to respiratory problems and ideally feed haylage to reduce exposure to dust and mould spores. If you soak hay for more than 10 minutes, you soak out energy, sugars, protein and minerals, so unless the horse needs to lose weight, you will need to balance this forage carefully. For hard working horses or poor doers, you may have to add a moderate to high energy compound feed based on highly digestible fibre to make up for losses from the hay. Steaming is a better option for working horses than soaking, if hay is the only choice of forage.

Feed a supplement to help support the respiratory system, ideally containing therapeutic herbs and antioxidants. Ideally, all stabled horses should be fed a respiratory-supporting supplement.

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About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is one of the UK’s few registered independent equine nutritionists who also has expertise in health and fitness. She advises private and commercial clients in all sectors of the horse world and is a hands-on horse owner herself. Clare is passionate about correct nutrition as a foundation for good health, without which peak fitness is not possible. She states “Good nutrition isn’t everything, but there’s nothing without it”.